Final Reflection on FKNMS Blue Star

Last week I presented my Needs Based Assessment report to NOAA sanctuary staff from both the Florida Keys office, sanctuaries across the US, and to headquarters staff. While somewhat nerve-wracking, it was truly incredible experience and had a very positive reaction by my audience, which solidified how meaningful my fellowship deliverables are to my host organization.

What did you accomplish with your host organization? What was the impact of your work?

The main accomplishment of my work with FKNMS was the development of my Needs Based Assessment, which concluded with both short-term and long-term recommendations to strengthen the Blue Star program. This allowed for invaluable insights of what is and isn’t working with the program, and what are the next steps that can be taken. My recommendations focused on challenges regarding Blue Star’s annual training, resources/materials, and overall public awareness of the program.

I was even able to act on some of these recommendations by reorganizing the existing annual training modules, incorporating more interactive plugins, creating a new quiz system, and adding a new module for important updates and ways to get involved. These were all recommendations requested by Blue Star affiliated partners that participated in the surveying, which demonstrated an immediate impact of my fellowship findings.

Describe the benefits of this experience for you professionally and personally?

This fellowship has truly been of the most meaningful experiences I have had in my professional. Not only has it fulfilled a dream of mine to work for a NOAA office, but I also observed the immediate of my work to a community who really does their best for the environment. I gained an incredible lifelong mentor through my supervisor, who was always willing to answer questions and introduce me to other NOAA staff members that align with my career goals. I can’t thank my supervisor enough for little things such as inviting NOAA headquarter staff to my presentation, so that I could see how wide of an impact my fellowship had on the Sanctuary Department.

And personally speaking, the Keys was beautiful and so inspiring for how much the people cared about the ocean. Regardless of if they worked for NOAA, or owned a dive shop, or fishing business, or was a concerned citizen. There was real participation and concern from all different stakeholders in such a real, current example that I would be lucky to continue to be a part of.

Did your experience provide any unexpected discovery, self-reflection, or epiphany?

Not necessarily an epiphany, but this fellowship did solidify my intentions of working for the federal government for ocean protection. That being said, it did expose me to the barriers that comes with an institution. From paperwork, photo releases, timelines, staff capacity, it’s difficult work. But also, very impactful and very necessary. I am excited for my future career, and hope that other incredible offices such as FKNMS will be a part of it.

Diving into Blue Star

At about the halfway mark of my fellowship with FKNMS, I was able to take a break from all the virtual meetings and actually visit Florida Keys in person! It was such an incredible experience not only to immersed into their office staff, but to explore the incredible nature the Keys had to offer.

One of my favorite parts of my office was all of the old posters!

While my primary task was to conduct in person interviews for my Needs Based Assessment, my supervisor also ensured that I got out into the field for some much-needed exploring. This included kayaking through the mangroves in the John Pennekamp State Park!

During my free weekend, I also got to explore special places throughout the keys, such as the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, FL. They do incredible work for rehabilitating, and in most cases releasing, sea turtles that have been impacted by boat strikes, marine debris, and water pollution.

On the last day of my trip, I attended the Sanctuary Advisory Council’s July meeting, which consisted of the announcing of the proposed policy framework: Restoration Blueprint. This was an invaluable experience for me, because it showed what real stakeholder engagement looks like and just how much of a process/timeline developing policy frameworks entail. I was truly grateful for the experience and how much my supervisor insisted I observe the process.

A woman sits at a table behind a laptop holding a mug and smiling.

Ocean Sustainability through Ecotourism in the Keys

This summer, I am working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to help support their Blue Star program. Blue Star is a voluntary recognition program that partners with local charter boat operators throughout the Florida Keys. Through offerings such as scuba diving, snorkeling, and fishing, Blue Star partnered operators promote responsible and safe practices for both their customers and the ecosystems within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Blue Star provides a yearly training to its partners, as well as resources, materials, and community events.

A logo of a Red flag with a diagional white stripe behin a large blue star and 3 waves vertically placed on the bottom half of the star.  The words "Blue Star Operator' is above the flag  and "Committed to Coral Conservation" is below.
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Megan Spitzer: Promoting Sustainable Diving and Fishing in the Florida Keys

NOAA Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary
May 30-August 16, 2022
Key Largo, Florida, USA

Megan is working with Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to conduct a Needs Based Assessment of their Blue Star Program. Blue Star partners with local diving and fishing operators in order to implement more sustainable practices and education through their certification voluntary recognition program. Megan will be conducting interviews with both Sanctuary staff and partnering operators in order to evaluate the program and make any recommendations for its continued success.